If each of us took 10 percent of the time we devote to work and shifted it to relationship building, we’d reap impressive financial and emotional rewards.
Today’s guest post is by Larry Thornton, author of Why Not Win? A Reflection on a 50-year Journey from the Segregated South to America’s Boardrooms — And What it Teaches Us All (CLICK HERE to get your copy).
After more than 40 years of affiliations with prominent corporations, I’ve come to believe that most people could benefit from working a little less and relating to others a little more. Winning in life depends on the efforts of other people to support you and advocate on your behalf and so investing time and energy in relationships with others is a winning strategy.
I’m not advocating for a cynical, Machiavellian approach to relationships. Chances are you’ve run across people in your working life who pretend to befriend people and then seek to manipulate them for their own benefit. To the contrary, I’m suggesting that you build relationships in a sincere way such that respect and rapport come first, and support later follows.
Sometimes a relationship gets off to a shaky start and then becomes incredibly rewarding. My experience with Max Cooper illustrates this path. When I finished the training required to become a McDonald’s franchisee in the early 1990s, I wanted to build a store in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. I planned to be the first Black owner of a McDonald’s in the city. This would send a powerful message about the opportunities available to people of color, especially given the central role Birmingham played in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
I sought advice from Max for getting started. He owned dozens of McDonald’s in the area at the time, but his exclusive rights to the territory were expiring. I thought Max would embrace the chance to help another member of the McDonald’s family. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
After several phone messages went unreturned, I went to Max’s office determined to speak with him. I knew his assistant would be wary of an unannounced visitor, so I fibbed and told her that I was there to personally thank Max for his support of my development. A stand-off arose. Max wouldn’t come out and I wouldn’t leave. In effect, I held him hostage in his own office. But Max had to emerge eventually.
When he did, he was hostile, as I expected. Max offered me some advice, but the advice seemed likely to benefit him, not me. He showed me several locations where I could open outside the Birmingham area. I told him I wasn’t interested in other options. Birmingham was my home, and I was going to own a store there.
I was elated when my grand opening day arrived, but then an uninvited guest arrived — Max Cooper. Max sauntered behind the counter (my counter) while his business partner sneered at me, “You know you can’t run a McDonald’s, don’t you? We’ll own this store in six months.” Stunned by their rudeness, I couldn’t muster a response.
Max returned two months later with a warning that I was doomed to fail. He offered to purchase my store — an offer I declined. A few months later, Max again offered to buy me out. This pattern continued for a year. Each offer revitalized my efforts to succeed.
Because I’d endured discrimination throughout my life, I believed Max’s behavior was a racially driven affront. Eventually, though, I realized it wasn’t a matter of black and white, but rather one of green — as in money. Ray Kroc, who built McDonald’s into a global icon, allegedly stated, “If any of my competitors were drowning, I’d stick a hose in their mouth and turn on the water.” Max adopted this hardline mentality in running his fast-food empire. Had Max’s own grandmother started a McDonald’s in his territory, he might have been just as cut-throat as he was with me.
Over time, mutual respect started to emerge. After I realized Max was simply an aggressive entrepreneur, and after he developed admiration for me and my business acumen, we were on our way to a healthy and productive relationship — one that helped us both win in life. Eventually Max embraced me in the way I’d hoped he would from the beginning. His advice over the years made me a better businessman. We developed a friendship that enriched our lives and strengthened McDonald’s standing in Birmingham. And, in an ironic twist, I eventually bought five of Max’s restaurants.
What if each of us took 10 percent of the time we devote to work and shifted it to relationship building? I think we’d reap impressive financial and emotional rewards. In my case, Max Cooper became a mentor and friend. I was one of the last people to visit him in his office before he passed away at age 99 — the same office where we’d had a spirited debate years earlier.
Larry Thornton is an artist, entrepreneur, and servant leader. Growing up in segregated Montgomery, Alabama, he worked his way from sign painter to advertising manager for Coca-Cola United (CCU). Today, he owns multiple McDonald’s stores and serves on CCU’s board of directors. His book, Why Not Win? A Reflection on a 50-year Journey from the Segregated South to America’s Boardrooms — And What it Teaches Us All (UGA Press, 2019), serves as inspiration for people from all walks of life. In addition, Thornton and co-author David Ketchen’s graphic novel, You Have to Live, Why Not Win? takes his message to young audiences. Larry founded the Why Not Win Institute to share the book’s ideas on leadership, success, and personal accountability. Revenue from the sales of both his books supports the institute’s mission. Learn more at larrythornton.com.
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